We bet you think running downhill is the easiest, most natural thing in the world, right? Well believe it or not, when it comes to training for long races, there’s actual technique involved in running the downslope. And a significant risk of injury.
Descending while running feels easy – like you have to actually hold back. But each step downhill can produce muscle-damaging contractions in your quadriceps and lower legs, according to Greg Wells, Ph.D., an exercise physiologist at the University of Toronto. When running on level ground, these same muscles shorten as they fire, but on declines, they elongate and control your speed, creating micro-tears in the muscle fibers. While these tears ultimately lead to growth in the muscle, they also leave you tired and sore. It’s why the cruel planners of the Boston Marathon torture all of the competitors with a 4-mile downhill opening stretch.
If you’re planning on running a marathon or even a 5K with significant downhill territory, you should practice running downhill to prepare your legs and the rest of your body to handle these very specific muscle demands. Your overall performance will vastly improve for any race, because the muscle you build from the downhill terrain will help you run faster uphill or on level ground with less effort.
Practice running downhill
You can build your downhill muscle with either focused repeats or by running a hilly route. But choose your hills wisely and don’t go too steep, too soon, or you risk injuring your ankles, knees, and hips.
Start with a medium length gradual slope, not a steep decline. And look for a soft surface like grass or gravel, not a paved surface. If you’re training for a long distance race, ultimately you want to combine both kinds of surfaces.
How you hold your head during the downhill training is crucial. Don’t look at your feet – maintain an upright posture and focus your gaze 15 meters in front of you, eyes straight ahead. You may feel a natural tendency to lean backward and slow down, but resist this. Instead, engage your core muscles, lean slightly forward from your ankles, and align your upper body over your lower body. As you descend, take shorter steps, but quicken your cadence. This way, you’ll take lighter steps and land on your midfoot instead of braking with your heel. Also keep your landing leg slightly bent to avoid letting your knees take all the impact.
Training for the race
If you’re planning to run a race filled with downhills, make sure they’re in your training schedule from the get-go. Start small with one downhill training session every other week. When you find that you easily recover from that workout, increase your schedule to one downhill each week and eventually increase that to 2 downhills per week. But only run that second one when you’re sure you’ve completely recovered from your first – no soreness in the legs, knees, ankles, or hips, and no fatigue at all. As race day draws near, dial back these workouts to avoid over exertion and the risk of injury.